After Kimchi and Winter Sonata: The Intellectual Korean Wave

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Tuesday, August 16th, 2011
Emanuel Pastreich, professor at Kyung Hee University

Emanuel Pastreich, professor at Kyung Hee University

The Korean Wave (hallyu) has swept the world. Korea's romantic songs, thrilling movies and compelling television dramas have captured the imagination of a new generation-and quite a few from the previous generation. Although the mystique of Korean popular culture first took root in Japan and China, it has crept through Southeast and Central Asia and is now rolling into the Middle East and South America. Moreover, the Korean wave has extended to fashion and cosmetics, food and sports.

Nevertheless, although the Korean Wave has vastly enhanced Korea's visibility, we find that further up in the food chain the Korean Wave has not started in earnest. The truth is that most intellectuals in the United States, Europe or even Japan cannot name any Korean writers, have not read the essays of Korea's major intellectuals, and have little sense of the depth of Korea's history. We do not see English translations of articles by major Korean journalists appearing in the New York Times, and although President Obama may praise Korean education, he does not cite Korean experts.

But as someone living in Korea, someone who reads Korean books and journals, visits Korean galleries and talks with Korean intellectuals, I can affirm that there is plenty over here that deserves to be introduced to the world in a big way.

The highest priority is for us to introduce Korea's cultural past. There is an incredible wealth of writings by Koreans on Buddhism, Confucianism, self, and society produced over the last two millennia that has barely been touched. In most cases, those translations of the Korean classics that do exist were part of rushed projects to get out large amounts of text in short periods of time. We need scholars like Arthur Waley whose loving translation of Japan's Tale of Genji made it an essential part of literature classes around the world, or David Hawkes whose remarkable translation of China's Dream of the Red Chamber has made the novel a favorite. When the translations are of the highest caliber, international politicians and pundits will start to quote the great Koreans of the past. Only then will it no longer appear as if Korea suddenly stepped out onto the global stage in the 1980s.

Korean traditional medicine is a growth field. Korean scholarship on acupuncture and herbs is in many respects more comprehensive than what is available in China and Japan. And yet even as scholars at Harvard Medical School are taking a deeper interest in oriental medicine, little is available about Korea's great medical tradition in English. Kyung Hee University's Kim Nam-il's translation of "Donguibogam" (Principles and Practice of Eastern Medicine) into English is a critical first step, but more steps are needed.

But the question is also one of the visibility of intellectuals. Let us take the case of Thomas Friedman. Friedman writes about dozens of countries in his best-seller The World is Flat. It is a sign of cultural success that American intellectuals are taken seriously not only for their opinions about the United States, but also for their writings about other countries. Koreans must do the same: get their perspectives out about all issues, not just Korea.

I recently read the fascinating book entitled Afghanistan: Lost Civilization: A Tribute the Vanished Buddhas of Bamiyan (아프가니스탄 잃어버린 문명: 진 바미얀 대불을 위 한  헌사) by Ju-hyeong Lee (이주형). In loving detail, Lee presents the tragedy of Afghanistan's contested cultural traditions and the fatal decision of the Taliban to destroy the nation's most sacred Buddhist statues. I found Lee's writing to be exceptionally lucid and feel strongly that if the book were properly translated into English, it could be a global best seller.

When Korean writers start getting their articles published in world class intellectual journals like Daedalus and their books introduced in the New York Times Book Review, the Korean wave will be complete. At this point Koreans don't seem to think much further than Nature and Cell Magazine. And, at the same time, we need to build Korean publishers like Seoul National University Press into global players.

Korea is producing some of the most creative and innovative artists in contemporary art. I find it hard to flip through a copy of Art In America without seeing a work by a Korean. Yet those artists are just starting to get the attention that they deserve globally. What do we need to do? Well, we could form a "Seoul School" of painting with an original and significant vision, and get the word out about it globally. Or, we can just start integrating the avant-garde art of Seoul's artists into Seoul's architecture and public design. That alone would create a unique city environment. Seoul is already a thriving metropolis. It would just take a little nudge to take it to the level of Paris and Rome.

Finally, Korean language instruction needs to move up a notch as well. We need Korean textbooks that are imaginative and intriguing, with lively and humorous language taken from the best of Korean writing. We must leave behind those predictable dialogs between John the foreigner and Mr. Kim and create texts that focus on compelling scenes from Seoul's cafes and offices. Such materials will compel international students to learn more. We also have to demand that international students read and write Korean at a high level. The Korean acceptance of the low level of foreigners in the Korean language has hampered the development of bilingual internationals.

Moreover, dictionaries of Korean language should be produced that are for international readers, not for Koreans. At present, a Korean-English dictionary presents the word "nolda" (놀다) followed by sentences illustrating the usage of different English equivalents. But there is no English language definition of "nolda" to be found anywhere. Why? Because the editors assume that the reader is a Korean and therefore already knows what "nolda" (to play) means.

As Korean culture becomes more central in the world, it will be essential to make sure the teaching of Korean is first class. Tragically, many courses in the Korean language taught in the United States are aimed at Korean Americans. Non-heritage students drop out after of Korean language courses after a few weeks because they simply cannot keep up with Korean Americans. But, ironically, those non-heritage students are the most likely to go on and become Korea experts.

Korea already has all it takes to be a cultural power like France, Germany or the United States at the highest intellectual level. All that is needed is the will and the vision.

Emanuel Pastreich serves as a professor of Humanitas College at Kyung Hee University in Seoul and director of the Asia Institute. His original field is comparative Asian literature, but he writes broadly about technology and society, culture and international relations. He has a popular blog called Korea: Circles and Squares.

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